The following review is intended for adult readers.
I’ve always said that it you’re going to be outrageous and offensive, at least be funny. Humor often is the end that justifies the means, and Sacha Baron Cohen is one funny dude. His is humor in extremis—taking an already absurd scenario to its most cringe-inducing, over-the-top (yet strangely inevitable) outcome. He is the permanent answer to “oh no you didn’t.” Oh yes, he did.
That being said, I’m not buying into this notion of Cohen as the Jonathan Swift of our time. In his guerrilla-style comedy, he does two things: He takes regular people and puts them into situations so outrageous that they are forced to respond in uncharacteristic ways. He sees these as “gotcha!” moments. But to me, these are not glimpses into the true nature of people. They’re examples of how we respond when confronted by absurdity. (The answer: We respond absurdly.)
The other thing Cohen does is take people who are easy targets for ridicule, and mocks them. His admirers call that probing social satire. I call it shooting fish in a barrel. (Bill Maher was guilty of the same practice in his clever, but facile Religulous.)
Which brings us to Brüno. Even before seeing the film, I had misgivings about the character—a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista and shameless fame chaser. A sexual predator who mostly goes after straight men, Brüno is a gay activist’s worst nightmare. But somehow Cohen gets away with this because. . . we all know that he’s enlightened? That he’s in on the joke? That he’s not reinforcing dangerous stereotypes, he’s debunking them?Really?
The jokes in Brüno are mostly along the lines of this: Brüno wields a dildo in public (a lot), Brüno pantomimes oral sex, Brüno comes on to close-minded straight guys (a group of hunters; some swingers at a house party; in one case, a very befuddled Ron Paul); Brüno whips out his penis (a lot); Brüno has simulated sex with a man in front of a bunch of testosterone-crazed cage-fighting fans, and so on.
Shockingly, people do not respond well.
But at a time when our culture is moving, slowly but steadily, to a more tolerant attitude about homosexuality, I question the timing of this movie. Ellen DeGeneres has the number one talk show after Oprah. Everyone accepts the openly gay Neil Patrick Harris as a straight man in How I Met Your Mother. Gay marriage is legal is 11 states and will soon be legal in more. Is this really the time to use a character who may actually contribute to homophobia among those who don’t get the joke?
And frankly, in many of the film’s scenarios, Brüno’s behavior is so beyond the pale, that a straight man doing the exact same thing would elicit a similar response. In that sense, Brüno is not an expose of our intolerance toward gay men. It’s an expose of our intolerance toward socially unacceptable behavior.
Look, I marvel at Sacha Baron Cohen’s fearlessness. (At times, like when he tells an actual terrorist leader that “King Osama” looks like a “dirty wizard or a homeless Santa,” you might even call his antics suicidal.) And I appreciate that there is some genius behind his comedy. No one can be both more outrageous and more clever than Cohen. They shouldn’t even try.
But to suggest that Brüno is socially significant in even the slightest of ways—sorry, mein kleinen leibling. I’m not buying it.